The DBL Philosophy

Designing Better Libraries is about a great deal more than arranging spaces and selecting furniture.  Design, as we conceive it, is a way of examining library services and reengineering them to make them more accessible to patrons.  You may ask, “Aren’t most librarians already knowledgeable about methods for identifying and implementing services and resources that contribute to a better library?”  Indeed, they are.  But we are entering a time when our traditional techniques for developing new services may be inadequate for serving a new generation of library users with their own unique search behaviors and service expectations.  To address these changes, we advocate a kind of design thinking informed by processes developed by major design firms and design schools that emphasizes a novel approach to devising and implementing new ideas in libraries.

A good example of library service change informed by design thinking can be found at the University of Rochester.  Librarians there began a program of new technology implementation with a special design approach that focused on a core dictum of design thinking:  understand the user.  By employing the help of an ethnographer, librarians developed a process by which they gathered data about their users and how they search for and use information throughout their daily routines.  After analyzing the results of the study, they were better able to select appropriate services, technologies, and resources that suit users’ needs.  This approach, common in the business world, is radically different from the traditional library approach in which librarians choose technologies based on their perceptions of user preferences, but in which no design process is utilized to solicit user input.  In the turbulent and transformative times we face, merely identifying useful technologies will be insufficient to stem the potential tide of marginalization from overwhelming libraries.

In order to secure the position of libraries as relevant and meaningful partners and service providers, we support adopting strategies from industries that, like libraries, are facing competition from the Internet such as print newspapers, for example.  In DBL, we will explore these strategies and their merits for designing a better library user experience.  We will broadly consider various ways we should think about what we design and who we design for, including design for:

  • Engagement
  • Personal interests
  • Local audiences
  • Information options
  • Outcomes (not features)
  • User education
  • Promotion
  • Services

As we explore the ways in which libraries might apply design thinking in their institutions, we’ll gather and share information, examples, and case studies from a diverse range of resources and disciplines including design, innovation, marketing, creativity studies, new media, business, design school programs, and librarianship.  In particular, we’ll highlight information that helps us better understand and apply design thinking in multiple formats including text and multimedia.
Ultimately, we’ll strive to provide our readers with the tools and techniques to apply design thinking to the betterment of their libraries.  We’re not representing ourselves as design experts; we’re learning as we go along.  But we think the time is right to begin exploring how we library professionals can also become better designers of services, instructional products, resources, organizations, and perhaps even library environments.  We look forward to having you join us on this journey, and are eager to receive your comments and ideas so that, by working together, we can learn from each other to integrate the DBL philosophy into the practice of librarianship.


5 thoughts on “The DBL Philosophy”

  1. You cover the academic roots well, but you have missed the traditional roots of the public libraries: boot-strapping! Remember Carnegie? His libraries were designed to help surplus agrarian workers in gaining necessary skills for a more technical world.
    That’s what we’re doing down here in McAllen, Texas – taking an old Wal-Mart and turning it into a public library that can help the motivated to gain needed skills and information.
    Beyond that, well, as Heinlein said, ‘specialization is for insects.’

  2. Thanks for sharing your public library example. It’s great to help those who need access to public libraries for lifelong learning and career advancement. That said, opening a library is considerably different from the design approach used by the U. of Rochester to get a better understanding of of how their users really use the library in an effort to discover what their real information and service needs are. A better public library example would be the work that MAYA Design did for the Carnegie Mellon Library in Pittsburgh. This project was profiled in Library Journal about a year ago – and we did a webcast over at Blended Librarians with the project manager from MAYA Design (the archive is still available). MAYA did more of an ethnographic study of workflows within the building and that was used to redesign and rethink how to create a better library experience. Yes, Carnegie built a lot of libraries and that’s a tremendous contribution to society that still helps people today – but I don’t think he ever evaluated how effectively the services those libraries provided met the needs of the library users. That’s something we want to pay more attention to here at DBL.

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